Kim Sponem, president/CEO of Summit Credit Union, has never been one to shy away from tough conversations as they have often helped pave the way for discovery and growth.

“There’s no limit of good ideas, the challenge is figuring out which ones are going to be the best path to reach your mission and vision,” said the latest Women to Watch honoree. “It takes a lot of conversation to sort through. Sometimes, we need to look at a problem differently and be open to the possibilities.”

As someone who values trust within an organization and amongst her teammates, Sponem learned early in her career that a collaborative atmosphere delivers the best outcome.

“We pay people for their brain power so we have to create an environment to maximize their talents,” she said. “So much time is spent at work that it has to be a place where you have fun, enjoy what you do, feel recognized and know that what you do is important and really makes a difference.”

Recognizing that people have options, she added that employee development and empowerment have played a huge role in sustaining that fun at work culture.

“We try to create an environment that is filled with opportunities to try piloting different things,” Sponem said.

That piloting has been a boon to innovation and getting ideas off the ground, she added. Many pilot programs have been adopted and served as a starting point. The move has helped many embrace change and tempered any of the usual fears of failure associated with launching something new.

For example, Summit plans to embark much deeper in diversity and inclusion, Sponem said. From a grassroots perspective, the credit union aims to determine if there are biases, how does the organization play into them and examine whether barriers exist. In speaking with community leaders the goal is to better understand achievement gaps and identify where the challenges exist in the community.

“One of the things I was asked early on was, ‘what’s the budget for diversity,’ and I won’t put a number to it,” Sponem explained. “I don’t like to limit thinking on the front end. We want the best ideas that will push the organization further. So, I don’t want a budget number to be a barrier.”

Always driven to find relevant solutions, she has remained focused on the role Summit will play in the future, which means the dialogue around how the organization can improve to better serve members has been ongoing.

“I love strategic planning, and kicking off new initiatives to see what happens with them,” Sponem shared. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing people take something and run with it.

At Summit, innovation comes from creatively thinking about how something can be improved. She said any one problem has multiple solutions. It boils down to trusting the team to accomplish the overall mission or vision so that small innovations go on every day.

During a board strategic planning session about how to get members more engaged in the annual meeting, a discussion began on the many successful cooperatives that are based in Madison, Wis., Summit’s home city. A curiosity about how to promote area cooperatives and better serve the cooperative community’s lending needs resulted in Member Fest and the Co-Op Connection. At Member Fest, the annual meeting was transformed into a fun, family event and picnic with more than 1,000 members and their families attending each year.

As for Co-op Connection, the public celebration of the area’s cooperatives has entered its fourth year and the number of visitors has swelled to over 4,000 with more than 26 cooperatives participating in the event including two other credit unions this year, Sponem said. Participating cooperatives each get their own booth and have opportunities to engage and educate locals about the cooperative business model and how it helps boost the local economy.

“The event has grown because the team behind it wanted to increase attendance; they pushed forward to find the best way to make it happen,” Sponem said, adding that the gathering wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration and support from such community partners as CUNA, CUNA Mutual Group, University of Wisconsin Center for Co-operatives and the Wisconsin Credit Union League, to name a few.

She has always been a big believer that playing an active role in strengthening local communities served. To Sponem, a strong community, built through strategic partnerships, can only positively influence the lives of employees and members alike. That community involvement strategy has paid off.

Under her leadership since 2002, Summit has grown from $200 million in assets to now more than $2 billion. In addition, through a merger of equals, branch locations have expanded from four to 29 with two in high schools and another high school branch on the way.

The credit union said it has also become the number one mortgage lender in Dane County and has been recognized as Best Place to Work, Best Credit Union in Dane County, Best Financial Advisor in Madison and Top SBA Lender of the Year among credit unions in Wisconsin for the last three years.

“I’m proud of our growth. It’s an affirmation that we are doing the right things for our members,” Sponem said. “Our financials are strong and we’ve been able to be profitable. That’s important as it gives you the ability to keep doing more.”

Summit is widely recognized as a local leader in financial education with such initiatives as STAR Credit Union, which is a hands-on financial learning youth-charted credit union and Project Money, where four families work with a Summit financial coach to reduce debt and increase savings while competing for a $10,000 grand prize.

The credit union is also known for Red SHOES, a financial wellness program aimed at helping women gain control and confidence in their financial decisions – an effort that has meant the most to Sponem. To her, partnering through collaboration has helped take a solution and magnified the results to create an impact no one person or organization could achieve alone.

“There are global societal issues that can be too big for one person to solve. Take for example, poverty,” she noted. “When you learn why poverty exists, the challenges and barriers involved, many may walk away thinking there’s nothing I can do,” she said. “But what if more leaders asked, ‘out of all that information, what’s one small change can we make or do differently that will positively impact those in poverty?’ Maybe we examine our living wage for those who work at our organization. It may be small, but the key is that we go beyond understanding the issue to being proactive in doing something about it.”